New Delhi: Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, who has been considered the ruling party’s future prime ministerial candidate, said he will play a more proactive role in the party and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that it heads. The decision has been taken, the timing is up to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, he told the NDTV news channel.
The Congress party promptly issued a statement expressing its happiness at Gandhi’s announcement.
Coincidentally, on the same day, Ratan Tata posted a strong defence of Prime Minister Singh online, saying that while all is not well with the Indian economy, the entire blame can’t rest with the head of the government. Urging Singh to “break conventions” to restore the UPA government’s credibility and place the country on the growth path once again by ushering in promised reforms, Tata blamed the opposition, media and other critics of the Prime Minister for hobbling Singh.
Political analysts say both developments assume significance as they took place on the day of polling to choose the next president of India and as the ruling party is considering a makeover of the party as well as the government. The UPA candidate, former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, is expected to win the presidential poll comfortably.
However, the feel-good moment for the Congress was dampened after fresh differences surfaced within the UPA; this time involving the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Pawar, along with party colleague heavy industries minister Praful Patel, skipped the cabinet meeting chaired by the Prime Minister late on Thursday.
Stepping up: Rahul Gandhi says he will play a more proactive role in the party and the UPA, and that the timing will be up to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Photo: Hindustan Times
“For the first time in eight years, the NCP has not attended the cabinet meet. Pawar has never asked for any position. The issues are much higher. We will discuss this in the party,” NCP spokesman D.P. Tripathi told PTI.
The row erupted after Mukherjee, who quit as finance minister on 27 June after being nominated by the ruling coalition as its candidate for the post of president. Mukherjee was the de facto No. 2 in the government. According to PTI, the controversy was triggered after the chair next to the Prime Minister was allocated to defence minister A.K. Antony at the last cabinet meeting, signalling that he was now the No. 2 in the government.
Pawar was allocated the seat next to Antony, apparently upsetting him as he used to sit in the same place when Mukherjee was in the government. Last Saturday, the NCP had kept away from the UPA meeting to decide the vice-presidential poll candidate, PTI said.
The Congress sought to play down the incident. “I do not know whether he (Pawar) attended the cabinet meeting or not. We do not have the details in this regard right now and it would not be appropriate to comment. However, there is no problem for the coalition,” said Rashid Alvi, a Congress spokesperson.
Some analysts viewed the differences within the coalition as efforts by the NCP to seek a bigger role in the government’s decision-making.
Mumbai-based political analyst Jai Mrug said he does not see the NCP “leaving” the government.
“The NCP, in spite of all its noise, has never parted ways with the government either in Maharashtra or at the Centre. The NCP does not have other political options. They do not really have the numbers that can upset the apple cart,” Mrug said. “The only thing that the NCP is really doing is jockeying for space... Sharad Pawar wants a status equal to his experience.”
Many senior party leaders and ministers have in recent days urged Gandhi to take on a bigger role in the wake of both the party and the government losing popularity due to a series of controversies over corruption and lack of policy initiatives in the face of inflation and slowing growth.
The Congress, especially the Prime Minister, has been facing repeated and consistent criticism for several months over his inability to get the government that he heads do the things that he says need to be done. The most recent instance of such criticism was in Time magazine, which put Singh on the cover with the headline “Underachiever”.
In an open letter posted on Twitter with a note saying “apologies for the silence, depressed to see the attack on India, felt obliged to express my feelings”, Tata said, “...we should also recognize the enormous damage done by political infighting; the single-minded goal of the opposition to topple the government, the allegations, accusations of corruption and illegal acts which have brought all government action into a standstill.”
Tata expressed concern over “unconfirmed sensationalized stories in the media to sell publications, (and) the manipulation of policy by power brokers and powerful vested interest groups to meet their self-serving desire to continue protection”.
He also mentioned “policy changes” that have destroyed the credibility of India, in an apparent reference to the controversies related to the telecom sector and the subsequent governmental and judicial interventions.
“Yes, it is true that our country lost growth momentum over the past 12 months, the investment confidence has declined, that inflation has soured and that the government action has been too little too late,” Tata said. “But to single out and blame the Prime Minister is grossly misdirected.”
The Congress-led UPA, which won a second term in 2009 with an impressive victory, has been mired in controversies and corruption charges, including those related to irregularities in the allocation of second-generation spectrum in the telecom sector. Singh has also been under fire for his inability to contain corruption among UPA leaders, check rising inflation and stop his cabinet colleagues from squabbling.
The objective of Tata’s letter seems to be to spur the Prime Minister into action.
Criticizing the policy paralysis in the government, Tata called for a change of approach from Singh, too. “All eyes are on him, here and overseas. In what could be his finest hour in leading the country to economic prosperity once again...he will need to act boldly—to be courageous and to do the right thing for the sake of the country,” he said.
“We all hope he will,” said Tata.
Mrug said both the developments have to be taken in the context of the desperation for a makeover in the party and the government. Pointing out that the 41-year-old Gandhi scion should adopt new positioning after his failed attempts to revive the Congress in Uttar Pradesh during the recent elections, Mrug said, “The government has to brace itself against two upcoming agitations—one led by activist Anna Hazare against corruption on 25 July and yoga guru Ramdev’s 9 August agitation against illegal money. The government needs a makeover, which should somehow appear as a response to the increasing unpopularity.”
He added that the recent campaign defending the Prime Minister could be a reflection of Singh’s desire to get a new team to reinvigorate his administration before forthcoming state elections and the next general election scheduled for 2014.